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The Hindu
The Hindu
M.K. Narayanan

The road to China’s 20th Party Congress

The 20th Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Congress is scheduled to take place later this year. Unlike the kinds of situations that at times prevailed on the eve of some of the previous Party Congress events, no unforeseen events are anticipated. This is a reflection of President Xi Jinping’s tight control over both the party and the state apparatus. As of now, it seems a foregone conclusion that Mr. Xi will continue as the Party General Secretary for an unprecedented third term.

Nevertheless, the 20th Party Congress is significant for the reason that it is being held at a time when China, for its part, sees the period as one of ‘great disorder’. Also, after decades of spectacular economic growth, China is currently seeing a significant economic downturn, even if its economy is still doing better than most other world economies. Inexplicable as it may seem, the impression that China gives today is that it is being shackled by antagonistic forces.

China’s world view

The main difference between 2012, when Mr. Xi became the Party General Secretary for the first time, and 2022, when he is almost certain to be anointed for a third term, is how China’s world view has altered. In the external realm today, the Chinese leadership believes that the United Nations has become dysfunctional and is no longer able to maintain global peace. Global economic cooperation and stability, China avers, has broken down irreparably. The post-World War II consensus on almost all matters has ceased.

Internally also, there has been a shift, with greater importance being attached to ideological training to withstand ‘inimical forces’. The objective apparently is to ensure total loyalty to Mr. Xi. Party control over not only the armed forces, but all wings of the public security system and apparatus has been tightened. Defending “political security” is now the priority.

Coinciding with this is an upsurge in nationalism. This is based on China’s purported concern that the ‘threat of containment’ of China has increased, and unity within is crucial. Furthermore, this is critical for China to escalate its aggressive manoeuvres, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Much of this is already evident to an extent, with China flaunting its ‘escalation domination matrix’ in terms of nuclear weapons and new forms of hybrid warfare at one level and highlighting its advanced manufacturing techniques at another. China’s $15 trillion economy and strong military, and the rapidly closing gap relating to state-of-the-art weaponry, can be expected to fuel the determination of the Party Congress to withstand any kind of challenge, specifically to China’s supremacy in the region in which it is situated.

Possible outcomes

What appears almost certain is that the Party Congress will put its seal on Mr. Xi’s current assertive foreign policy initiatives. The imbroglio over the recent visits to Taiwan of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and a U.S. delegation subsequently is expected to intensify China’s hawkish posture on the issue of Taiwan. In all likelihood, this will receive the approval of the Party Congress. The Party Congress is also expected to give Mr. Xi a fresh mandate to defeat all future attempts to detach Taiwan from mainland China, if need be, through the use of military force.

Simultaneously, the Party Congress can be expected to give Mr. Xi the authority and a fresh mandate to defeat all current U.S.-led manoeuvres in the Asia Pacific, which are seen as aimed at weakening China. Growing distrust of the West, approximating to a near breakdown in relations, as also the portrayal of the U.S. and its allies as existential or near existential enemies are also likely outcomes emanating from the Congress.

Of equal, if not greater, significance is that the 20th Party Congress is likely to bury for all time Deng Xiaoping’s approach of keeping a low profile until the opportune moment. Based on a belief that, given the relative decline of the West in several spheres, including the economic and military spheres, this is the opportune moment, the Party Congress may give Mr. Xi the authority to go to extreme lengths to achieve its goal of paramountcy in global affairs.

Simultaneously, the Party Congress might also find this an opportune time to shore up the CPC’s domestic legitimacy, by claiming that China under Mr. Xi has been able to overcome a variety of problems, including the COVID-19 pandemic and all attempts by the West to undermine China’s power and potential. In all likelihood, the People’s Liberation Army will get a further boost, with the Party Congress endorsing its centrality in regard to many of the developments taking place.

Also apparent on the eve of the Party Congress is the extent of opaqueness seen in China’s intentions today. Little clarity is available as to its long-term or even medium-term objectives. Two recent initiatives by China — the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI) — reflect this. The GDI, coming almost nine years after the highly touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), merely contains a broad range of aspirations. Unlike the BRI, which witnessed a spate of infrastructure building across the globe, the GDI is, for the present, being touted as a ‘manifestation of China’s wisdom’. The objective behind GSI appears even more ambiguous, even as Mr. Xi continues to proclaim that security remains a precondition for development. No elaboration of what this means is forthcoming.

The Congress could also see a series of initiatives in other directions. One clue regarding this is Mr. Xi’s recent call for ‘self-reliance’. This is a possible hint that China proposes to gradually distance itself from certain countries with which it had maintained close economic relations till now, viz., the U.S., Europe and Japan, emphasising in its place ‘self-reliance’ and trumpeting its ‘singularity’ as regards strategic and advanced technologies. As it is, China has made very significant advances in emerging domains such as cyber, space, and artificial intelligence which are expected to help it dominate the emerging globalised era. In certain areas such as solar, China already claims to have a stranglehold over both the technology and the raw material to sustain any such move. An endorsement by the Party Congress to do this would enable China to steer clear of countries such as the U.S. positing the excuse that it would free China from the vagaries of so-called ‘free world’.

Some concerns

The Party Congress could, however, witness a discussion on certain ideological issues, which continue to be debated in certain quarters but are yet to find a resolution. The presumption ‘growing rich is not evil’ has undergone a change under Mr. Xi, who is a firm believer in Communist orthodoxy, and it would be interesting to see how the Party Congress reacts to this. A string of harsh measures taken to curtail the activities of China’s leading technology leaders, followed by a downturn in the economy, is already heating up the debate on ideological principles and policy in China today. It hinges on the exact stage of Marxist development in China, so crucial to Communist theology per se. None of this is, however, likely to rock the boat at the Party Congress.

The one imponderable that many experts advert to, especially those in the West, is the impact of the uncertain state of the Chinese economy. Most people agree that continuity of the CPC leadership in recent decades owed much to the consistent performance and progression of the Chinese economy. The Chinese economy today is performing well below what it had achieved in the recent past. While the 2020s have provided a set of challenges for almost all countries across the globe, in China the political fallout of a slowing down of the economy has the potential to create upheavals in the higher echelons of the Chinese leadership. Also, recovery could become more difficult in the climate of repression that exists in China today.

Whether concerns about the present situation and of China possibly falling behind in the next stage of global development with serious consequences for its future will adversely affect Mr. Xi and the present line-up of CPC leaders can be debated. But it appears highly unlikely that it would seriously undermine Mr. Xi’s leadership at this time. Most certainly, Mr. Xi is unlikely to face the kind of travails that Zhao Ziyang, who was General Secretary of the CPC during 1987 to 1989, had to contend with. Zhao was purged politically and was under house arrest as he lost favour with the paramount leader Deng.

Notwithstanding what has been stated here, there are still many imponderables present. The shape the 20th Party Congress may take cannot, hence, be safely predicted. While Mr. Xi’s place in history is assured, whether he will eclipse Mao Zedong as the ‘Great Helmsman’ is uncertain.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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